Steve Smith: Journeyman


Although Journey has been around for eight years, tremendous public acclaim has come for the band only recently, particularly gaining momentum within the last three years of existence. With the addition of lead singer and writer Steve Perry, five albums ago, Journey’s music has encountered much more mass appeal. Perry’s first album with Journey. Infinity, released in 1978, rose steadily in the charts, finally becoming top 20, while their following album, Evolution, attained a top 20 position much faster with the inclusion of their first top 20 single, “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.” Departure and their live album Captured, rose quickly as well, and their current Escape, the first album sans keyboardist Gregg Rolie and with new member Jonathan Cain, begins the first in a new trilogy, displaying Journey’s constant development and change.

Another change occurred four albums ago in 1978 when band members decided to replace drummer Aynsley Dunbar with their present drummer. Steve Smith. As Perry told the Seattle Times, “The reason we changed is because we want to have the versatility to do anything we want. With Aynsley that was impossible. He definitely was one of those stylized drummers. He has a fantastic style, really strong, but I just feel the nature of the word ‘journey’ is a movement situation. We had to change because Evolution could not have been done with Aynsley.”

With Smith, band members envision greater opportunity for variety, which confirms that the extensive training Smith has received since the age of nine, has certainly been worthwhile.

“I never really decided that this was going to be my profession,” Smith said, seated in his hotel room close to L.A.’s Forum, where Journey would be performing that evening. “It is just what happened. I never thought about doing anything else. When I look at it now, it’s like, I can’t help but be a drummer. It’s just a strong feeling to want to play the drums. I can’t live without that.”

Growing up in Whitman, Massachusetts, 25 miles south of Boston, Smith became interested in the drums while at a fourth grade assembly. Soon, he began taking lessons in elementary school. His parents, who remained supportive of his musical aspirations, found him a local private teacher by the name of Bill Flannigan, and Smith started learning the technical aspects of reading and playing the rudiments, staying with Flannigan from the fourth grade through the twelfth grade. In the sixth grade, he got his first drum set, a Rogers Champagne-sparkle set, and in the eighth grade, he played in his first band, The Road Runners, a horn band that played a lot of Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass material.

By high school, the music Smith was listening to was a cross between Count Basie to Oscar Peterson type trios, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream, and he began playing in a rock and roll band that played a lot of Grand Funk Railroad and Deep Purple tunes. At the same time, Bridgewater State College in the town next to Whitman, had a big band in desperate need of a drummer, and Smith managed to fill that position, while working in a circus band to earn some money.

Upon his graduation from high school in 1972, Smith decided to further his education and enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

“My parents were always very supportive of my music, but the one thing my dad would always say was that he didn’t know if I would be able to make a living at being a musician, so he felt that I should get a degree in music education. I didn’t really want to do that, but it was a chance for me to go to Berklee. I wasn’t really ready to go out and play anyway. I was just 18 and I didn’t really feel that I was ready to make a living at it.

“All through high school, I had been doing a lot of different kinds of things, and the thing that helped me the most was my reading ability, but I didn’t really have great time back then. The things my teacher had stressed the most were sight reading and chops, and while it was good background, he had never really stressed time and feeling. That was something that I didn’t learn until after I was out of high school. It was when I got to Berklee that I really started to find out that reading was great, but I needed to develop a strong sense of time. After my first year at Berklee, I went to a Stan Kenton clinic. Peter Erskine was the drum teacher and he had a way of playing time and demonstrating time that I really tuned into and picked up on. He was probably my strongest help as far as time is concerned.”

Smith’s newly acquired focus altered his practice techniques radically.

“Through the years I had always practiced from slow to fast, but then I found out that that’s the worst possible thing any drummer can do for his time. If you practice like that, you end up playing like that. After that clinic, I started practicing everything in time and in meter. I started playing along with the metronome and records and being really conscious about it, and then looked for bass players who were better than I was, who would work with me. That was the best thing about Berklee—there were so many musicians. Every night I could find people to play with. That’s where I got a lot of practical playing experience, playing every night with somebody, whether it was a gig or just a jam session. To improve my time, I geared myself to think in that way. I really set out in search of wanting to play with good feel and I think that was probably the most important thing I did. I know a lot of players who don’t play with good feel, but haphazardly think that you’re either born with it or you’re not. You have to develop it, so I tried to do everything to do so. I talked to people about it and listened to a lot of records, like a lot of Aretha records with Bernard Purdie and a lot of old James Brown records, and studied in depth what notes were being played. I would try to write it down and then try to play it and get the same feeling they had gotten. I guess I understood the importance. Most of the young people I know now, and those I have taught, don’t realize the importance of working on their time and their feeling. They think it’s more important to work on their flash and their chops, their technique and their reading. If they would only understand that it’s time and feeling that is going to get them the work, they would devote themselves to do that.”

Because he has gotten so much out of the clinics he attended, Smith now conducts them whenever he has the chance.

“I don’t know that many drum shops where I really like to do them, though,” he admitted. “I went to one where it was, ‘Okay, go in there and sell some drum sets,’ and that kind of feeling is not really conducive to doing a good clinic. I would rather just do a few of them, but do them at places where the people are really sincere about them, like the Creative Drum Shop in Scotsdale, Arizona.”

After returning from the Stan Kenton clinic, which Smith termed “the most valuable learning experience I ever had,” he got his first professional gig with Lin Biviano, a trumpet player who had worked with Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson. While continuing his studies at Berklee, Smith spent two years touring weekends and summers with Biviano’s 15 piece modern big band. For a short period of time, he also played with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco in a quintet.

One semester Smith was given a full scholarship to go to the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma because their stage band was in need of a drummer. Discontented with the lacking music scene in Oklahoma, Smith stayed only one semester, forfeited his scholarship and returned to Berklee for his seventh semester.

It was shortly thereafter that bass player Jeff Berlin, with whom Smith had played many times, asked Smith to accompany him to New York for an audition for Jean-Luc Ponty’s band. Both musicians got the gig, but only Smith accepted the position, and in October, 1976, close to his graduation, Smith left Berklee for his first important gig.

“What I’ve done is followed my opportunities rather than setting out in a direction and following that direction. I was capable of playing almost any type of music, so I would just go with what came along, and really, it all felt good to me. I had really been into the ECM style, but I got away from that because that wasn’t really happening for me. If I had gotten a gig doing that, I would have probably gone in that direction, but I got the gig with Jean-Luc, so I went into the heavier fusion style of drumming.

“It was a great experience to play with great players in Jean-Luc’s group. I had to be real consistent and I was learning a lot because I had never played with such a consistent group of people. But from being in that group, the one thing I learned that I didn’t want, was to work for somebody who was always telling me what to do and telling everyone what to play. I wanted to be more in control.” After a year and three months, Ponty fired two guitar players along with Smith all at once “because he wanted to change his musical direction and wasn’t happy with us anymore.”

Smith moved to Los Angeles for a brief time, and after auditioning for Freddie Hubbard and Ronnie Montrose, he was chosen for both gigs.

“I had the choice of staying in jazz and being a sideman and playing for a leader, or playing with Ronnie, who was into rock and roll. The biggest difference was that Ronnie’s band was more group oriented and he would let me have a lot to say, and let me play more. I really wanted to be more a part of a group, which is why I decided to go with Ronnie. I also wanted to learn how to play authentic rock because I still hadn’t really played that. He let me play very free because the tour I did with them was an instrumental kind of fusion rock.”

Since Montrose spent half its tour opening for Journey, Smith became very friendly with its key members, and at the conclusion of his tour with Montrose in August. 1978. Journey asked Smith if he would like to join their band. He did so the following month.

Steve Smith
photo by Paul Natkin

“I love playing in this band,” Smith smiled. “The way I look at it is, if I weren’t playing in this band. I probably wouldn’t be playing rock and roll at all. The thing that this band had to offer that I like so much is the high caliber of musicianship. Steve Perry and Neal Schon (guitarist) are people that I really respect and are great to work with. I’ve probably learned more from Steve than from most people because Steve, himself, is a drummer. He started out as a drummer, so the concept I’ve learned from him is how to play drums behind a singer, and how to play really strong rock and roll drums. I had never played with a singer before. It had always been instrumental, so I really needed his input to help me. I have to play much wider time. By wider time, I mean you have to be careful not to squeeze the measures so the end of the measure comes too soon. A lot of drummers can play good time, but sometimes their meter within the time is a little off. The notes get squeezed together and the spaces in between the notes aren’t perfect. That’s what I had to learn: to make my measures all fit exactly into place so nothing gets squeezed; that the notes are evenly spaced; for every note to get its full value, and to be stronger and even more soulful—more feeling in my playing. I had to tune into what he was doing and think. ‘What would I do if I were singing? How would the beat sit right so I could sing easily over this?’ I’ve applied that to everything now. I’m pulling together all the background I have and everything I’ve learned musically, all kinds of odd groupings, time signatures and phrasings and I’m trying to put it all together into a style that I can use in this band. It’s a whole new style within rock and roll. It’s really hard to say exactly what style Journey is. The way we approach it is as musicians that are playing definitely within a rock world with a rock public, but trying to come up with music that we are really proud of. Music that will still appeal to the masses. That’s the direction I want my playing to go. To use everything that I’ve learned musically, and without obscuring myself, I want to try to put it into a new kind of package that is really interesting, which, at the same time, everyone can hear and appreciate.”

The fact that Journey is finally receiving mass recognition has created certain benefits for Smith that did not exist before, including an increasing seriousness about his position.

“Something inside of me is giving me a constant inspiration now. to constantly practice and perform. Before, it was really hard work to go in and practice, without much to look forward to. It’s really hard to inspire yourself, but getting as popular as we are getting is a constant inspiration to continue to practice. If that many people like me and are buying our records and coming to see us, I’ve got to really play something for them. It keeps me working really hard and has made me even more intense about growing musically. Another couple of benefits of the success has been that I can afford to get a house so I can stay in the house and practice, pick and choose a little more of what I want to do, and afford to get the different drums I want.”

Smith has gone through several drum sets, including a Rogers, a Fibes and a Slingerland. When he joined Ponty. He got a Sonor set, which he has played ever since.

“When I first went out with Ponty. I had my basic little Gretsch set with the 20″ bass drum, two mounted toms and a floor tom. After I had done one tour with him. he asked me if I’d get a bigger set. I actually needed a stronger sounding drum set, which is why I got the Sonor set with two 24″ bass drums. I’m mainly looking for a really big. fat sound, and that’s what I get with those drums. Gretsch drums really have a good sound too, but the Sonor drums are even bigger sounding for what I need right now.”

His live and recording set-ups are identical, using almost all Sonor drums. For some time, he was using two 24″ bass drums, but then decided to use one 24″ and one 22″. “The reason I went down in size was for a little different sound, and also so that the hi-hat is a little closer,” Smith explained.

His toms consists of 9 x 13 and 10 x 14 mounted toms, and 16 x 16 and 16 x 18 floor toms.

He has two snare drums which he alternately plays, a regular Sonor metal, 6 1/2″ deep snare and a Slingerland Spitfire. On his snare, he uses the Remo Fiberskyn 2 head.

“That’s the best snare drum sound I’ve ever heard because it gives the drum a muffled sound. I don’t like the snare sound to be real ringy and I don’t like the sound if you put a muffler or tape on it either, because then it’s too thuddy. This new head gives it the crack and more of a funky sound. The only thing is that they don’t last too long. I go through two a night, although I was going through one a night anyway when I was using the other heads.”

On his other drums he uses Remo clear Ambassadors on both tops and bottoms. He cuts a hole in front of each bass drum to get a better mike sound and doesn’t put any muffling on any of his drums.

He uses Dean Markley Stix which are comparable to a 5B, and a DW 5000 chain foot pedal with a felt beater.

His cymbal set-up is extremely practical. Last year, one of his roadies. Jim McCandless, invented a unit of two large bars on which all the boom stands are built.

“There are no cymbal stands going down to the floor. They’re just coming off of this T-bar,” Smith explained. “It’s also easy for him to put up and take down. I wouldn’t have been able to use as many cymbals as I do if it weren’t for this invention. If I were just using cym bal stands, I would have only been able to use four or five, but I really like having all the different sounds.”

He has recently switched to Zildjian because, “In the bigger places that we’re playing now, the sound is a lot thicker.”

His cymbals include a 24″ heavy ride, 16″, 17″, 18″, 19″, 20″, 22″ crashes, an 18″ swish, a 22″ swish, an 11″ splash, and 14″ hi-hats.

Smith takes an entire spare set on the road now, with which to practice. It is combination of some of the old drum sets he has, with a 20″ Gretsch drum, an 18″ Sonor bass drum and some Pearl concert toms.

“The worst part about going on the road in the beginning was that I couldn’t practice. I had to practice on a little practice pad and that was a drag. Now that we’re playing in the type of places that we are, I can afford to have a guy who does nothing but take care of my drums and I can carry an extra set along. I practice a couple of hours every afternoon. I never run out of things. Every single day I have all kinds of new ideas and new things to work on and to play. The two hour practice serves as my warm-up for the evening’s concert,” he play at night and if I go out there cold and start hitting hard right away, I’ll lose my muscles and they’ll either tense up or rubber up and I’ll get out of control.”

He also has an electric drum machine that he uses for his practice and feels that it is a good way to work on time, and more interesting than a metronome.

For Journey’s upcoming 1981 tour, Smith will be changing his equipment to include the new Sonor Signature set with longer drums. His red custom-made 12-ply wood set will have an 8″ deep wood snare, two 22″ bass drums, and four mounted toms in sizes of 10″, 12″, 13″ and 14″ with 16 x 18 and 18 x 20 floor toms. “What’s different about them is they have all brand-new super heavy-duty hardware and the drums are extra long with a really big sound and more tone. They’re comparable to buying a Stein way Grand piano and they cost about $6,800. It’s a new concept in drums.

He will also be returning to a smaller cymbal set-up with regular cymbal stands for a different feel and look. At home, he has some Synare equipment which has accompanied him on various tours, but he prefers just using his regular set. “When I’m at home. I use the Synare 2 a lot to set up odd time signatures and stuff, but I haven’t used it live. One of the reasons goes back to the recording sound. What Journey is trying to do when we record an album, is record a timeless record that you can buy now, or you can buy later, and it will still sound good. If I put a Syndrum sound on it, which I believe is just a fad, it will date our records.”

He has also participated in the writing and hopes to do more of it. Smith is thrilled about the fact that when the tunes are being written, the band leaves it wide open for him to come up with his part.

“What I like most is the freedom of improvisation. It’s a certain level of communication between players. They are at a certain level of communication where you can create spontaneously.”

Another such situation for Smith is a trio with which he is involved in his spare time. The trio consists of Smith, Tom Coster, keyboardist and producer for Santana, and Randy Jackson, who used to play with Billy Cobham. In addition to performing live, they plan to record in the near future as well.

“We’re all coming from kind of the same place of playing in rock bands. The concept is that we’re trying to play something that we don’t have to compromise on or make salable, because we don’t have to earn money by it. We have our other thing which we earn money by. So we just get together and play. We got together for a month off and on to rehearse, and we played a gig at the Keystone Corner in San Francisco. It went really well, so now. whenever we have the chance, we’re going to keep it together and try to play a lot and record. The music itself is going to be in a different direction because it’s coming from a different place. My background is jazz really authentic jazz and rock. Our backgrounds are really true, so we’re going to come up with an interesting music. That’s the perfect outlet for the direction that I’ve been developing in. Journey is also, but it’s more on a mass appeal level. I don’t think I would be able to do this thing if I hadn’t been in Journey.”

In his spare time, he has also been doing sessions at Fantasy Studios so as to keep his other musical playing capabilities vital and alive.

He has been involved with Sonor as much as possible and represented them at the Frankfurt trade show last February, as well as having done a clinic for Zildjian last November at the Percussive Arts Society, in which he was the first rock drummer to participate.

A project of which Smith is particularly proud is an album recorded with Journey in Japan at the close of their 1980 tour. Group members wrote and performed a score for a film called Dream After Dream. While it will not be released in the U.S., the band felt it would help build their Japanese following and present new musical challenges. Mostly instrumental with strings and horns, the effort bears little resemblance to the group’s past albums, but Smith said. “I think my playing is some of the best playing I’ve ever done on any record.”

At 26, Smith is pleased with the way things have gone.

“There is no real ultimate goal,” he concluded. “I just want to keep playing, keep developing like I have been, keep playing with good musicians and come and rock, but Coster’s background is the up with new music.”